Vale: Eric Bird—International Coastal Geomorphologist
I am departing from my planned sequence of blogs on heavy minerals in coastal deposits to pay tribute to Eric Charles Frederick Bird. Eric recently passed away in Melbourne. Over many decades he has made enormous contributions to research on coastal landforms here in Australia, and significantly on the international stage.
I owe a huge personal debt to Eric. The year was 1960 and I had just commenced my honours research on the geomorphology of the Port Stephens-Myall Lakes area at Sydney University. A preliminary look at air photos alerted me to multiple bay barriers in different sediment compartments north of Newcastle. I sought advice from Joe Jennings, a geomorphologist at the ANU. He was extraordinarily generous with his time and referred me to a recent ANU PhD by Eric Bird on the Gippsland Lakes. It was amazing; this thesis was inspirational. Here was a study of sand deposits and biogeomorphological changes to a system that had many similarities with my study area in NSW. Eric was back in the UK at this time, so I did not get to meet him until 1964 during the International Geographical Congress in London. We sat together in a room in University College for several hours comparing notes. By that time I was writing up my study for publication. It was an illuminating discussion because of some differences in interpretation and it was apparent we both needed to have that exchange.
There is so much to say about Eric’s work on Gippsland Lakes. At a meeting three weeks ago in the Victorian Royal Society on environmental problems confronting the Lakes, several of those present recognised how much we owed to Eric. Neville Rosengren, a long-time associate, was able to expand on my thoughts as we discussed Eric’s insights on the salinisation of this estuary complex following the artificial opening of the Outer Barrier at Lakes Entrance in 1889. The dieback of Phragmites and associated shoreline erosion was noted by Eric as tidal flows extended into the lakes. Continued degradation of this system would have appalled him.
I treasure my copy of his “Geomorphological Study of the Gippsland Lakes” published in 1965 as a monograph of the Research School of Pacific Studies ANU (G/1). This work was accompanied by the brilliant maps produced by the cartographic unit of the then Geography Department in RSPS. They clearly depict the array of landforms that form the barrier complexes. He also examined contemporary changes to the beach and foredunes along Ninety Mile Beach. This work generated further interest through his engagement in a debate on the origin of so-called beach ridges published in the Australian Journal of Science in the early 1960s. Eric later revised his regional geomorphic study in 1978 (Ministry for Conservation, Victoria, Pub. No 186). Several decades later a number of us, including his successor at the University of Melbourne, David Kennedy, have had the privilege of building on the earlier work of Eric in our collective studies of this region’s geology and geomorphology.
Eric undertook a range of local and regional geomorphic studies in Australia. Outside of Victoria among the most memorable to me were his 1969 study of the deltaic shoreline near Cairns, and that with Dent on rock platforms on the NSW south coast. He combined with his former supervisor Joe Jennings to write a very insightful study of different degrees of estuary infill on two coastal lakes on the NSW south coast, a forerunner to later work of Peter Roy. This paper was published as a chapter in a book on global estuaries edited by Lauff in 1967. More locally Eric undertook many studies around Melbourne. This includes his recent review of Melbourne’s Bayside Geology and Scenery published by the Sandringham and District Historical Society (2019). “The Coast of Victoria” published in 1993 is still the go-to volume for coastal specialists in that state.
It is as an “internationalist” that Eric Bird is best known in coastal science. In the early 1970s he commenced a long association with the International Geographical Union (IGU). He became Chairman of the Working Group on the “Dynamics of Coastline Erosion” (1972-76) and then the IGU Commission on the Coastal Environment (1976-84). In this capacity he served as convenor for world-wide studies of coastline changes. The key outcome of this work was a book incorporating information supplied by over 200 correspondents representing 127 countries. It was published in 1985 as “ Coastline Changes: A Global Review” (Wiley Publication). This work highlighted observations indicating “that erosion has been more extensive than deposition around the world’s coastline in recent decades, especially on low-lying sandy coasts”. He concluded in the days before the significance of global warming was appreciated, that “ the explanation for this is not simple: a number of factors have contributed to the modern prevalence of erosion”. In later works he examined the effects of rising sea levels and also the complexities of beach management, all of which drew on his extensive travels and experience through this association with the IGU Commission and the United Nations University.
A quick look at his publication list shows he wrote papers, many single authored, but also involving many coastal geographers and geomorphologists from Denmark, Indonesia , PNG, USSR, Philippines, New Caledonia, Kenya, Peru, and the UK—an amazing engagement. In 1985 he teamed with Maurie Schwartz from the USA to edit a huge compilation of coastal knowledge in “The World’s Coastline” (Van Nostrand Publications). He showed in all this work a mastery of many aspects of coastal geomorphology from beaches and dunes to rocky coasts to estuaries and coral reefs.
As a member of geography schools in Australia and the UK, Eric took the opportunity to ensure university students benefited from his research. While a Senior Lecturer in Geography at the ANU he published the first of his teaching studies on “Coastal Landforms: an introduction to coastal geomorphology with Australian examples” (1964). This is a fascinating study illustrated with simple but meaningful diagrams. During his long tenure as a Professor in Geography at Melbourne University he published a more comprehensive text on “Coastal Geomorphology” (Wiley) in 2000. This offered a review of the evolution and dynamics of coastal landforms including effects of human activities incorporating so much of what he had learnt since his days at ANU. A revised edition of this book appeared in 2011.
In his retirement Eric continued to provide information and support to staff, students and those in the community interested in coastal issues. He generously donated his aerial photo collection to Melbourne University which has continued the tradition of coastal geomorphology which he championed. I personally regret not spending more time with him in recent years. However, as indicated here I know enough of what he has contributed to coastal science to appreciate his role as a giant of the discipline. It is a privilege to pay tribute to his achievements.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org